The Lady and the Tramp

Low Beng Choo, 83

People grow old. Gravity wreaks havoc on our once-supple skin and the passing of years brings silver strands to our mane, various organ malfunctions and three bags full of regrets. Some regrets we forget. Others we encase in concrete and sink deep in the depths of our hearts, hoping they will never resurface. Inevitably there will always be that one compunction that haunts us all our lives.

There was a time when Low was young and beautiful. When she turned 18, her family arranged for her to be married as was the practice in society at the time. Love was just a four-letter word, a Hollywood fantasy, a concept Low never experienced. What she did experience was anger, resentment and heartbreak, courtesy of a husband who was a sorry excuse for a human being.

Today, Low is dressed simply in a matched set of shirt and pants. Though hardly new, they had been freshly pressed to make them more seemly for our visit. Her home, a one-room rented flat, is spartan but scrupulously clean. There is no hint of a dustball between the side table and two old wooden chairs. On top of a tall wood and glass cupboard sits a Buddhist altar with a red candle and some floral offerings. Low keeps its flame going without fail. But why?

It would not defy comprehension if Low had abandoned religion when she tells you about her life. It would seem her is a god that did not answer her prayers, but let her suffer through more than six decades of hardship and saw it fit to take her children from her – her first child passed away at seven months and her second died in her womb after five months.

Yet it is probably the act of praying, of supplicating herself to someone up there that gives Low the strength to carry on. Or perhaps she is giving thanks for the small mercy of having one surviving child – a daughter to whom she has given her all.

“My husband was a drunkard, a gambler and a smoker, often getting into fights when he was drunk. He was hardly ever home, disappearing for weeks on end. He never provided regularly for the family. I had to do odd jobs to support us. Divorce did cross my mind but I was not educated, so I doubt I could find a permanent job. And despite being good for nothing, at least he never laid a hand on me.”

Low’s daughter got married and blessed her with two grandchildren. She felt comforted for a while, then life threw her a curve ball again. Her “wretched husband” was diagnosed with dementia and became wheelchair-bound after suffering several falls. Things took a turn for the worst when his body started rebelling against him, and giving him cancer. For two arduous years, Low was committed to taking care of a man who didn’t deserve any compassion.

Even in the final years, he showed no remorse but threw temper tantrums and dished out verbal abuse. “I was furious and tired all the time, but what else could I do?” Low’s husband eventually succumbed to cancer and passed away. And for the first time in many long years Low could breathe easy again.

At home, sitting by the lit candle on the altar, Low often plays her life over in her mind and feels convinced that her worst regret in life is marrying the man who put her in this lot. Alone, relying on the government for financial aid, waiting for that supreme being up in the sky, the one for whom she lights a candle every day, to finally take her away.

She Flies the PAP Flag

Lam Ah Mui, 79

A miniature flag bearing the familiar lightning rod flutters gently at the main gate. Past it, a messy living room holds three stools, a folding table, old yellowed newspapers and Ah Mui’s favourite chair, where she sits and waits for the hours to tick by every morning after breakfast until it’s time to go down to the activity centre.

It’s her favourite time of the day. She has friends there, folks her age whose faces too have been beaten down by life’s harsh hands. But they laugh and smile and exchange stories of days gone by, like the times when the children Ah Mui babysat would pay her a visit or the Japanese fighters planes that flew overhead, carrying its menacing bombs and causing her parents to scramble into different hiding places to escape from ensuing explosions while dragging her along. “I was more curious than afraid of the planes though,” Ah Mui shares with me in Cantonese. She was only six back then.

While she survived the war, her father was not as lucky. The elder Lam was badly beaten by Japanese soldiers during the Occupation. He held on for as long as he could but he soon succumbed to the injuries, mercifully passing away after the Japanese had been defeated. It was left to her mother to bring up eight children, including Ah Mui. But she never complained and helped her mother to collect uniforms to wash despite her young age. 

Ah Mui has never held a stable job or been lucky enough to go to school. She was born during a time when women were to be seen, not heard. She mostly worked odd jobs and received financial aid from government organisations to get by. She’s worked in laundry and dry cleaning shops, canteens, hawker centres, anywhere that would accept an old lady with no education and a work ethic borne of lifelong hardship. The one-room rented flat she lives in is heavily subsidised by the government. Ah Mui only forks out about $70 a month.

Why did you never get married, I ask Ah Mui. “Life was hard back then. I never imagined that I could have a family of my own.”

And what about now? Is life easier? Ah Mui pauses upon hearing the question. Her hands stop gesticulating. The toothy grin disappears and she leans back on her favourite chair, looking out of the gate. The flag has stopped fluttering.

“Life is always hard. But I have no regrets. I just want to be healthy and happy until God calls me home.”

The Man with No Mother

Cheong Chee Chong, 87

You can’t escape the smell of stale cigarettes and damp clothes when you enter Cheong’s house. In the background, an old television with a bulbous back is turned on, with the sound off, playing a re-run of an old local series. On the floor is a stain of a spilt drink, left there ever since it occurred, who knows how long ago. Missed? Forgotten? It feels more like “why bother?”. But it is a vital clue in a picture of neglect and loneliness, with little to look forward to but death’s cold embrace.

Cheong is slumped on a plastic chair that shows more life than he does. It creaks, moans and scratches the floor it stands on.

He has barely any hair left. A smattering of sun spots smear his face and arms and his eyes are dark as a forest on a moonless night. He has high blood pressure and skyrocketing cholesterol levels. He barely speaks and when he does, it’s a whispery rasp that disappears into the air if you don’t lean close enough to catch it. Cheong used to have a roommate with him in the one-room rental flat but the friend passed away a year ago and now, he is all alone.

“I am waiting to die. I am ready to leave this world,” Cheong whispers to me in Cantonese. How do you react when someone tells you that?

Do you tell him that the world is a beautiful place? Do you ask him why he wants so badly to go? I merely jot down his quote on my notebook. I feel powerless.

We talk about the war and what he did during that time. Cheong mentions running from shelter to shelter with his grandmother while the Japanese soldiers rampaged through the island. When the battles abated, his grandmother and he found jobs on the airfield. They picked rocks and stones and hacked cement and slabs to patch the holes on the runway. In return, they got a packet of rice and $1.20.

When the Japanese surrendered, Cheong worked as a painter. It barely paid, so Cheong would take on any odd jobs that came along. “Life was hard and the jobs came sporadically,” he whispers. The economic miracle that Singapore experienced in the post-war years never blessed Cheong. He kept his head down and worked, and worked, and worked, until his body broke down when he was 72.

We talk. Cheong looks at me with those dark eyes and in one brief instant, we connect. I watch silently as a tear rolls down his cheek. Then, two. Three. Four. And then the dam bursts. Cheong wipes his face frantically, pouring his pain out between his sobs. And then the truth emerges: “My father sold my mother when I was young because we had no money. Then he disappeared. I’ve always wanted my own family but how can I start one when I never knew what it’s like to be in one?”

I let him speak. Five minutes pass. The tears have become quiet sobs and his shirt sleeve is wet with sadness. There is a smell in the house. It’s the smell of repressed memories, of pain and suffering, of a home that never knew love.

Read more stories of the forgotten elderly in our November issue.

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